When I wrote my blog on October 12, 2011 I raised the question of whether there should be more county oversight of the Harford County Humane Society. This was prompted by some personal experiences I had with shelter staff involving two dogs that had gone through the shelter. With the county just approving the funds to build a new shelter building for the private organization, on privately owned land, it seemed like a good time to raise any questions or concerns. The blog drew a number of responses, some who had worked or volunteered for the shelter in the past who had complaints about the shelter operations and accountability, some who had a negative personal experience with the shelter, some who completely supported the work of the shelter, some suggesting the shelter become a “no kill” shelter, some suggesting the shelter adopt a TNR (Trap Neuter Release) program for feral cats, others opposed to TNR who feared for songbirds, some trolls, and, surprisingly, a response blog from David Fang, President of the Harford County Humane Society. Mr. Fang extended an open invitation for anyone who had concerns to come to the shelter to discuss them.
I accepted that invitation and on Tuesday, Oct. 26 I met with both Mr. Fang and Executive Director Mary Leavens for three hours. Prior to that meeting I attempted to gather as much information as possible drawing on various sources including previous and current employees and volunteers, rescue groups that work with the shelter, the H.O.P.E group, TNR, public records, and other concerns that had been raised by those posting responses to the blog(s). I welcomed the input from Peter Masloch, who turned an Allegheny county municipal open admission animal shelter from a high kill shelter (90% kill rate) in to a No Kill Shelter. I even spoke with someone local who had previously managed a shelter, other than HCHS, to get their input about problems and obstacles faced by an open admission shelter. I scoured Google for any news on the shelter and found dismal reports from 2007/08 about the health concerns at the shelter, followed by a number of news articles that were also critical of the shelter. The H.O.P.E Facebook page had asked a number of the same questions I had, as well as supplied a set of plans for the new shelter building obtained from the county through the Freedom of Information Act. Erika Ponsiek, founder of H.O.P.E, recently spoke at the county council meeting. In talking to all of these people, the same goal was evident, save as many lives of animals in shelters as possible. So how can people who all want the same thing be so divided?
I arrived at the shelter for my meeting with Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens expecting to be patronized, only given answers to certain questions and being shuffled off after a half hour, but I was totally wrong. Everything was on the table. There wasn’t a question that was off limits. There wasn’t a subject about the past, present or future that they were not willing, and anxious, to discuss. It was an open exchange of information and ideas. Here are just some of the things I learned during my meeting:
1) After clarification on criteria used to euthanize animals, I have adjusted my original calculations as they were incorrect. These figures are based on the 2010 figures supplied by the shelter.
- Dogs- approximately 71% of all dogs that entered the shelter leave alive. Of these dogs, about 40% are reunited with their owners. Of the remaining 60% most were adopted with less than 1% transferred to rescue groups.
- So what about the approximately 29% that are euthanized?
- 10.4% are euthanized at the request of the owners. The vast majority of these dogs are elderly being brought in because they have major health problems that have extinguished their quality of life. The cost of euthanasia at the shelter is less expensive than at most vet offices and is often the reason people choose the shelter. According to Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens it is very rare a healthy animal is brought in by its owners for euthanasia and every effort is made to convince them to put the animal up for adoption. Since these animals are not destroyed due to space, staff determined medical or temperament, removing them from the figures increases the number of dogs that leave the shelter alive to 80%.
- Temperament problems are the biggest reason animals are euthanized at 12.2%, but what does that mean? Although no professional behaviorist is on staff, animals that continually bite or show continued aggression are not good candidates for adoption. Some animals are aggressive out of fear, or to guard food and efforts are made to place these animals with rescue groups that might have resources to be able to address their behaviors. County regulations require all dog bites to be reported. If a dog in the shelter bites multiple times it can be viewed as vicious by county regulations and the shelter cannot take responsibility for adopting that dog out to the public. Perhaps if there were an organization that works specifically with such animals , some of those dogs might have happy endings, but as of now no such organization exists.
- Medical reasons make up 2.9% of the animals being euthanized. The shelter receives animals brought in from animal control and the public. Some animals are injured so badly or have such severe medical conditions there is no choice but to euthanize. There is no veterinarian on staff so emergency situations are taken to local ER facilities. Non life threatening medical issues are seen by a vet who comes in several times per week.
- Less than one half percent of dogs were euthanized during 2010 due to lack of adopters/space in the kennel during abnormally busy times.
- So what about the approximately 29% that are euthanized?
- Cats- only 31% of the cats that entered the shelter left alive.
- Why such a low number compared to dogs?
- Sadly, only 1.3% are returned to owners. Cats are less likely to have identification or be reclaimed by owners.
- 29.7% were adopted and close to 1% went to rescue. While dogs have a multitude of rescue groups, there are not that many cat rescue groups. Thus 7.7% of the healthy adoptable cats that enter the shelter are euthanized due to lack of adopters and space at abnormally busy times.
- 3.2% are euthanized at owner’s request and much like the dogs, the vast majority of those cats have major health problems that have extinguished their quality of life
- 23.1% were euthanized for medical reasons. As with dogs, there is no veterinarian on staff so emergency situations are taken to local ER facilities. Non life threatening medical issues are seen by a vet who comes in several times per week.
- 11.6% are euthanized for temperament problems, problems that are so severe the animals are unable to be handled or show continued aggression. There are just not rescue groups that might have resources to be able to address their behaviors. There are not even enough rescues to take the healthy, loving cats.
- 17.5% fall into the category called “feral”, or wild cats, with no chance of adoption, and are euthanized. 507 cats fell into that category. While TNR “might” be an option at some point in time, the resources are just not available for the shelter to institute such a program now.
- There is no veterinarian on staff to perform spay/neuter. Most ferals are brought in from areas where they are not wanted through calls to animal rescue, or by citizens that have trapped them, and returning them to the same area would not be acceptable. Currently there is no organization that takes feral cats that has the resources to offer spay/neuter services or to relocate them to areas where a caretaker is available. County regulations currently prohibit the transfer of feral cats from the shelter to individuals that might want to take on the responsibility for their relocation and care.The TNR program has worked well in some areas and not so well in other areas. The key is having that support system for the colonies to house and care for them. For TNR to be considered in Harford County it would require changes to regulations allowing the shelter to turn over those cats to others, as well as the organizations willing to take on that responsibility, and finally for the public to be educated on how and why it works. Unfortunately unless those things change, feral cats being euthanized will continue to be a problem, as the cats left behind continue to breed and replenish the colonies.
- Unlike private no kill shelters, the shelter is required by the county to take these feral cats through their agreement to be an open admission shelter.
- Even if you factor the feral cats out of the equation, the percentage of cats that leave the shelter alive is still only 38%. Cat lovers should take note of these figures. These animals are dying because they are not taken care of responsibly by their owners- allowing them to roam, breed and fall victim to the elements, traffic, and others who might harm them. Irresponsible owners and a growing population of feral cats really make the number of cats entering the shelter overwhelming to house and there are not many rescues or programs in place to lessen these problems.
- Why such a low number compared to dogs?
Could these numbers improve? Absolutely! The addition of a professional behavior expert might save some of the animals euthanized due to temperament. The addition of a veterinarian on staff might save some animals currently euthanized due to medical reasons by recognizing treatable illnesses sooner. Both Mr. Fang and Ms. Leave have already planned for those additions as soon as funding allows.
Much has been said about the experience of the President, David Fang, and Executive Director, Mary Leavens, not including any animal care experience or training and but “only” a business background, There has also been criticism of everyday business terms such as “inventory” being used to describe the number of animals currently in residence at the shelter. While I admit I cringed when I heard the animals being called “inventory”, and I suggested not using terms that sound like objects instead of living, breathing animals, I found that both Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens are committed to changing many of the things that kept HCHS from operating efficiently and making the best use of resources. While they may not have had the experience going into the positions, they actively seek input from professionals both within the organization and outside of the organization. They want the changes they make to not only be positive for the animals but that can lay a foundation for future growth of programs the shelter can provide.
For example, the shelter implemented a program called “PetPoint Animal Management Systems” prior to when Ms. Leavens became Executive Director. Unfortunately, the software is only as good as the data that is input, or in computer terms- GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Because these records were not maintained well in the past, the data and statistics were nowhere near accurate, at one point showing over 2800 animals in residence, a physical impossibility for the space they have. The software allows for a more itemized accounting of an animal’s stay at the shelter. When used at its full potential, the software will allow for reporting that will be beneficial for future planning, for supporting documentation for grant requests, for donor requests, public informational requests and to justify the need for additional funds to hire additional, experienced staff to implement new programs, or other expenditures that arise. The software also has many other built in features that ultimately benefit the animals. To get back on track and serve the animals that are currently in the shelter’s care, it was necessary to start over in using this software. The shelter runs on a July 1 through June 30 fiscal year, much like county government. While there are plans to release 2011 statistics, as a private organization there is no legal requirement for them to release them to the public, although they can be beneficial to show the public the changes in management, programs and care that have been implemented are making a difference. I encouraged them to share their success stories with the public at large and not just in private meetings such as the one I was part of.
Based on the 990 form, salaries/benefits of HCHS staff account for 64% of the budget. While that at first seems staggering, after doing research on a number of other local non-profits that receive a majority of government funding, the average salaries per employee are directly in line with those organizations that I used in my research. Obviously more experienced personnel are paid a bit more and less experienced are a bit less, but using an average all are less than $28,000 a year. Policies and procedures have been implemented at the shelter for all personnel and volunteers. While they were met initially met with resistance, it’s been my experience as a manager that having clearly defined responsibilities actually makes an organization run more efficiently and keeps everybody on the same page. Volunteers are an integral part of any non-profit but much like the shelter management program, the database has near 1500 people in it, but only less than 150 active volunteers that give varying amounts of time and abilities to the shelter. Similar problems exist with the current list of rescue organizations the shelter draws from, as some are outdated and others need to be added and new relationships formed. It all takes time. While it’s easy to take one component and say how easy it is to fix, when there are so many components that need to be fixed, it can’t all be done at once and still care for the animals , the people who visit the shelter and to develop relationships with groups that can support your goals.
So what about accountability to the public and the taxpayers? There is no formal contract between the county and the shelter. They operate under what is called a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that outlines what services the shelter will provide. MOU’s are standard in non-profits where organizations work together to achieve a common goal. Each year the shelter meets with the county to discuss financial needs of the shelter to provide the services for the county. 78% of the animals being brought into the shelter are considered “strays”, which is what the funding from the county covers and currently the county provides about 50% of the shelter’s revenue. Although I have not personally seen the MOU, my understanding is the county allows the shelter to decide how they operate but the shelter does appear before the county yearly with a proposed budget and report on operations. The county has certain authority in the event of gross mismanagement and either side could end the MOU at any time.
This brings me to the construction of the new shelter being funded by the county. The county has determined that under the management of Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens the shelter operation is continually improving the operation and is in dire need of a new facility and proper tools for staff to do their jobs and serve the animals to the best of their ability. The plans obtained through the county by the H.O.P.E. group are preliminary and subject to change. An official RFP was put out by the county with the stipulation that the architect had to work with Shelter Planners of America on the design of the shelter. The desire was not to have a pretty building that wasn’t functional, but a building that would serve the animals the best, plan for future needs and programs, as well as be the kind of place the public would want to visit to adopt a pet, to attend training classes, to attend events and much more. The design takes into consideration that the shelter property is not serviced by a public sewage system, but a septic system, and while solid waste is disposed of, the liquid waste is capped to keep the seepage of nitrogen into the surrounding land within control. The 75 person conference room is actually planned to be a multi-purpose room for training classes, presentations, events, meetings and more. There will no doubt be zoning hearings in the future for public input.
I went to the meeting at the shelter not knowing what to expect, and I met people with a vision and a plan. Are they doing everything they want to do? No. Any business person will tell you that change takes time and if you don’t build on a solid foundation, taking one step at a time, you risk failure instead of success. As much as we would all like to see changes implemented immediately, it’s impossible to do everything they, and we, want to see immediately without the resources in money and personnel, and that takes public support to support the shelter as they take the steps to continually improve the operations and care of the animals. In spite of the obstacles they are already working on plans for new programs to be implemented long before the new shelter even breaks ground.
This experience has been very educational for me in many ways.
I have met some very passionate people from the H.O.P.E group and while the group was originally founded because of a bad experience with the shelter, I found many are very nice people who are only motivated by their love of animals and wanting to decrease the kill rates at the shelter. I learned that they are not an actual non-profit organization, but a group who want to see the shelter move forward and emulate and adopt programs of the successful no kill shelters. I think that is very admirable and I definitely agree. Achieving a 90% rate of animals leaving the shelter alive is very doable for dogs with the addition of additional resources of a behaviorist and veterinarian as soon as funding is available. I’m not so sure it’s realistic for cats given what the shelter has to work with today involving feral cats since the numbers are overwhelming and one veterinarian added to the staff would not be enough to serve the needs of the domestic animals in the shelter as well as feral cats. A low cost spay/neuter to the public would help stop breeding of roaming domestic cats, but also require additional resources in personnel and funding. While it seems the answer is to bring in more people to do the job, the reality is there is a limited amount of money to work with and 50% of the shelter’s budget is not paid for by the county and needs to be raised to continue operating. In today’s economy grant funds are down and donations are down, so as easy as it sounds, practically it’s not that easy. Many of the answers H.O.P.E. seeks are available by visiting the shelter and talking with Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens but past interactions between them have left both sides defensive. Some of the demands of H.O.P.E. posted on their Facebook page go beyond what is legally required of a private organization and I’m not sure the personal attacks on Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens are motivated by what is best for the animals, as it has only created more animosity and division between them. This is truly unfortunate since both groups are really working towards the same goal. In a perfect world with plenty of money and resources these ideas could be implemented immediately. In the world of reality it’s often not the case.
I never knew about TNR Programs before my blog other than the colony at Atlantic City. I’ve found out how they work and how they can be very effective. I think they could work in Harford County to cut down on the number of feral cats being killed in the shelter, and decrease the population, but a basic component of the plan, surgery to neuter is not possible today because there are no veterinarians on staff. None of the domestic animals that come to the shelter today have access to spay/neuter. People who adopt pets from the shelter are provided a voucher to take to a local vet to have the surgery performed. A deposit is taken at that time but returned when proof of surgery is returned to the shelter. So who is supposed to do the surgery? According to Mr. Fang, the second component, release by the shelter is not allowed under current county regulations, either on public land or to individuals that might want to take them. Those who are interested in being caretakers would have to work directly with those who want the cats removed to be able to gain custody of them. While many support TNR, (and if done correctly I would be among them) the network to support it is just not established at this point. Public support is not there yet either. I would venture that most of the public has not heard of it. In 2010 alone, 507 cats were euthanized as feral. For those that support TNR, those energies might be better spent creating that formal network, establishing or working with a non-profit for TNR, finding the funding, educating the public and then presenting a plan to the county as an alternative to current regulations.
The question I originally raised of why more information is not available to the general public about the shelter operations was discussed at length with Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens. With the shelter’s image in recent years being littered with negativity, including complaints from the public, previous employees and volunteers, veterinarians citing health and safety issues, continued turnover of shelter management, and high kill rates, the shelter is in major need of an image makeover to highlight the progress being made under current management, as well as what it needs in volunteers and funding to implement new programs and continue to take the shelter forward. It remains largely unknown by the general public who only knows what they have seen in the news, heard through rumors or experienced through limited contact with shelter personnel. While it’s admirable that Mr. Fang and Ms. Leavens will meet with anyone through private meetings, and I truly appreciate them giving me almost an entire afternoon of their time, I believe this kind of information needs to be disbursed on a larger scale, be it through links on their website (which is currently being reviewed and revamped), press releases, use of PSA’s and media, outreach presentations to larger groups of people, publications available to the public and more effective use of Facebook and social networking.
Finally, I saw the staff at the shelter working as a team first hand. As our meeting wound down, a dog ran past the window without a leash or person handling it. Both Ms. Leavens and Mr. Fang abruptly jumped up and immediately ran from the office, followed by administrative staff. Outside already were shelter personnel who had already closed the gates to keep the dog from leaving the property and everyone involved was committed to bringing this one dog safely back to the shelter. Nobody was allowed on or off the property until the dog was safely under control. It may seem like a little thing, but if this organization really didn’t care about every animal there, they wouldn’t have known how to react quickly and effectively and this dog may have met a different fate on Connelly Road.
At the end of my research, I remain sad that for the foreseeable future I don’t see any other answer for feral cats for sheer lack of resources and county regulations that need to be changed and public support built, to implement TNR. I feel sad that so many stray cats are not cared for responsibly by their owners and develop medical and temperament problems that lead to their euthanasia. I am said that until the resources exist to bring in a behaviorist and veterinarian some of the animals currently euthanized won’t be saved. Mainly, I feel sad that everyone I spoke with on all sides of the issue wants exactly the same thing- to decrease the numbers of animals coming into the shelter and to decrease the number of animals that are euthanized, but instead of building bridges and partnerships, they continue to build walls. What a powerful team it would be if they all worked together, instead of working against each other, to combine those resources to help make this a reality.